listening style

What is your listening style?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey

Such a simple and powerful quote. I love it because hearing it was an a-ha moment for me. It really sunk in: our listening style says a lot about us.

I find that my mind is always racing to the next challenge or goal. I’m always on a deadline, always aiming for something, always ready to respond, advise or solve — both, to be helpful, and to achieve and to progress.

Since learning, a little bit, to tame that thinking and since becoming an Executive Coach, I’ve met a lot of leaders like me.

There’s probably some correlation between fast thinking, goal oriented people, and early success in leadership. I say early because those characteristics often serve only to get you to a senior role, they then, regrettably, often work against you when you try to succeed as a senior leader.

And, I think Mr. Covey struck the nail on the head in discovering why that is.

Often, in a webinar I offer, I ask participants to think of the best boss they ever had. To close their eyes and think of that person and then tell me what quality or attribute it was that they most admired about them.

I would estimate that of all the many answers, probably 50% or so say something like “they listened to me.”

So if listening, with intent, is going to engage your colleagues and employees, while helping you succeed and achieve good things for your organization, how do we do it?

We pay attention to a few things:

Physical presence

How we physically and emotionally show up to others can have a big impact on whether or not they felt heard. I’m sure we’ve all had a time when we were speaking with someone and they said they were listening but they were looking elsewhere or clearly off in their own world.

Try these tips to demonstrate your listening style:

  • Make eye contact. Try hard to “digest” the words as you hear them. Listen for the themes and the threads.
  • Use body language such as subtle nods when you feel you understand, leaning in when you’re listening closely, arms uncrossed.
  • Pay attention to their body language. Are they worried? Uncomfortable? Eager? Pleased? Tie-in their body language to their verbal cues to better understand their intent.
  • Don’t multitask. It’s tempting in this digital era, to try to finish that last email as you listen (can you hear it: “Go ahead, I’m listening, I just have to get this email sent…”) or to steal a glance when your phone makes that “Ping!” sound.
  • Come out from behind your desk. A colleague of mine makes a point of walking around her desk and sitting side-by-side when her staff come in to tell her something. She finds it helps put people at ease and allows her to step away from her distractions.
  • Switch from “Yah, but…” to “Yes, and…” Once someone has shared something and you respond with “Yah, but” it has a way of negating what the other person said. This can shut down a conversation, sometimes before the person has made their case — particularly if you are the senior person in the room. Instead, try something like “Yes, I can see where you’re coming from, and I would add…”  See how this can reframe your interjection. It often helps keep people engaged and validates their contribution.
  • Know when you’re not going to be a good listener. If you’re distracted by other pressing matters, let the other person know and see if you can better schedule a time to talk (and then be sure to keep your commitment to that time).
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine the conversation, as it is taking place, from the other person’s perspective. How must they be feeling? If you were in their shoes, what would you appreciate from the boss? See if you can give them that.
  • Know their objective. Ask yourself what the other person would like from you — perhaps ask them that. Are they wanting to unburden, do they simply want to be sure you are aware of a situation or do they need your input? Your advice? Your decision?

When it’s time to speak

This might seem like it’s no longer part of the job of listening but it’s one of the most important ways that you can show the person you’re speaking with that you heard them loud and clear.

  • Paraphrase. Start by paraphrasing what the speaker said to make sure you heard correctly. Ask questions to confirm your understanding and not just of what was said, but what you understood their goal to be.
  • Confirm you heard properly. Ensure you’ve got this understanding before you dive in to your response.
  • Demonstrate collaboration. Again, try to replace the word “but” with “and” to show collaboration on the conversation, not opposition.
  • Build, don’t negate. Build on what they said before taking the conversation to a new place.

There’s always room for improvement in our listening style and the way that we interact with others and, yes, communication is a two-way street. You don’t always have to accept or agree with the other person’s points but the first step to resolving disagreements is reciprocal understanding.

Practicing effective listening techniques and prioritizing listening before speaking can go a long way to improving the flow and quality of communication between you and your team (or you and anyone in your life).

Coach’s Question

Can you think of a recent conversation where you weren’t listening with the intent to understand? What would you do differently next time?